Digital Archaeology Across Disciplines

I’m spending this year’s Day of Archaeology in LEADR, which is Michigan State University’s Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research. One of the lab’s primary initiatives is to help professors incorporate digital methods into history and anthropology courses, including archaeology. Students learn a variety of skills and tools, from data visualization and mapping, to multi-media dissemination of research. I recently started as the lab’s Assistant Director and have been gearing my skills training toward 3D modeling with the goal of teaching workshops to students and the wider Digital Humanities community at MSU.


Taking drone footage of a Campus Archaeology dig at MSU. Photo: courtesy of the Campus Archaeology Program

Earlier this summer, graduate assistant Brian Geyer taught me how to fly a drone over a Campus Archaeology Program trench to record video of the dig, as you can see in the photo at left, and he’s been helping me brush up on photogrammetry techniques, digitally combining photographs to create 3D models. The modeling is also useful in my academic research, which is on Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey where there are hundreds of rock-cut structures with wall paintings that date from the medieval Byzantine period. I’ve been learning Photoscan and SketchUp in order to find more nuanced ways than photographs to represent architectural spaces in the classroom and in publications.

My afternoon in the lab will be spent cleaning a dataset that I collected for my recently-defended art history dissertation. To collect the data, I spent two research trips hiking in Turkey, taking pictures and recording descriptions of ceiling decoration in monuments throughout several valleys. Over the last few years I also spent time in libraries and photo archives finding other published examples. One of my favorites is Eğritaş Kilisesi (which roughly translates to “Crooked Stone Church”) in the Ihlara Valley, the monument shown in the featured image (above). It is an enormous rock-cut space from the Middle Byzantine period that has been damaged by rock falls. There are remnants of paintings on the walls, ceiling, and apse, which are visible here because the west wall has collapsed. It was originally two stories tall, and decorated tombs are still visible at ground level. The result of documenting monuments like this one will be an interactive catalog of monuments in Cappadocia where monumental crosses adorn the ceilings and influenced viewers’ use of the spaces beneath. This research will become part of Open Context, a repository and publisher of archaeology data, and is also part of my capstone project for the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method & Practice that will convene next month.

As you can see, my work is a convergence of several threads—pedagogy, history, archaeology, art history, and design. The unifying factor in all of them is a goal to use technology to convey the past—its people, philosophies, and practices—in order to better understand ourselves. Doing this encourages empathy for people (both ancient and contemporary), whether they’re from across town or in a distant place, and contributes to wider understanding of the importance of cultural heritage monuments.

A.L. McMichael
Find me on Twitter (@ByzCapp) or check out @LEADR_MSU for more about our work in the lab.

From legacy data to drones

While my archaeological journey began in Italy and I still hang out with the Etruscans of Poggio Civitate, my day job is with the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis as the Publications Data Manager, a brand new position which I began in March of 2014, and FINALLY I’ve made it to site after messing with their data, images, documentation, and all things print and digital. Most of the time I’m in Cambridge (Somerville to be exact) cleaning up data, digitizing images, archivally storing those images, copy editing, website developing, and answering questions from scholars and fans of the Lydians and those who came after at Sardis.

My first day on site began with a ride in a land rover far older than I, crammed into the back with six conservators and equipment, to watch them take photos and take care of business on some newly exposed floor levels. The thing sounds like a swarm of bees, but looks like a good time to play with.  It’s less fun to have it flying right above you as you sweep a floor.  I got to hold a newly-lifted vessel in a box on its way back in the Land Rover to the compound.

Now I’m becoming accustomed to this depot, and after an hour it feels like home. I finally have the chance to weigh and measure a set of Byzantine glass weights that a scholar asked about a couple months ago for a new publication on this object type. Feels good to finally hold in my hands the objects I’ve only longingly gazed at in the images I archived.  Here at Sardis I’ve seen over 50 years of excavation, from paper tags to photogrammetry, shovels and drones, ancient past, less ancient past, recent past, present, and future.  So happy to be a part of it all.

Early morning photography of cleaned surfaces in some of this year's excavation units

Early morning photography of cleaned surfaces in some of this year’s excavation units

My natural habitat among boxes of artifacts

My natural habitat among boxes of artifacts